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My Turn: Room to reminisce

Both rooms are empty now: Annie’s faces the street, the owl-gray walls blending into the horizon beyond the window nearest her bed; Al’s is across the hall, the marine blue he picked out when he was 12 faintly visible beneath a layer of primer and three coats of white latex. The beds are made, although neither child has slept in them for years. The cable boxes are disconnected.

The closets are filled with textbooks, CDs and clothes left behind. There are photographs, of course, memories preserved in albums my wife filled the first summer it was once again just she and I alone in the house. Always the memories.

I married late in life. And became a father even later. Most men in their forties are focused on a career. The life challenges they face are usually manageable. I, on the other hand, was about to have a daughter. I was 41: the exact age my father was when I was born. I’d always thought my father had waited too long to have children; now I was doing the same thing.

Heightening my angst, in less than two years I would relive the experience with my son. Now I was even older than when my father had me. The next two decades loomed interminable. I’d be responsible for the nurture and nonstop amusement of two children 18 months apart. Not by myself, mercifully, but certainly accountable for all the "dad" stuff. By the time the kids were ready for college, I’d be in my sixties. Assuming I lived that long!

Happily, I did, and the decades I’d so dreaded were unlike anything I expected; poignant, to be sure, and heart-rending. But only in their inexorable haste, melding from birthday to birthday or one holiday to the next. And at a pace that made no allowance for adjustment. Infancy, adolescence, young adulthood: My children seemed to have raced through it all. The memories prove otherwise, of course. So many memories.

Annie is married now and living nearby, but the markers and crayons she’d once played with are dried up and forgotten in her old night table drawer. The furry monkey I’d bought in San Francisco still looks down from a curtain rod; the teddy bear she dragged along on every road trip nestles between two pillows, stitched whole many times over. The little girl who cried whenever she’d forget it in a motel or roadside diner smiles at it sheepishly from a wedding picture in the corner, her arm threaded through her new husband’s, relieved the ceremony went off without a hitch. Moments earlier, that arm had been threaded through mine, hand slightly trembling and fingers pressing into my wrist. Behind us friends and relatives lean over pews, jockeying for a better look. But time made no allowance for them either. In an instant I’d lifted Annie’s veil, kissed her on the cheek and entrusted her to a new life. The 28 years it took to walk her down the aisle receded in the church behind us.

Nor was it any different with Alex. The little boy I’d glimpse in the rearview mirror, engrossed in a video game or sleeping quietly, quickly grew taller than me and was soon driving himself. Piano lessons, music recitals, sleepovers: The routine seemed endless at times. Yet those phases too were short-lived. Not the memories though. The guitar he learned to play in middle school is propped against the radiator, a winter sweater folded beside it. Alex lives in Brooklyn now. He calls every week and visits on holidays. But when I go into his room sometimes, when the windows are open wide and I hear muffled voices across the backyard, I imagine he’s downstairs again with friends. Or about to ask to borrow the car.

It was a marvelous journey the children shared with me, an odyssey that rekindled everything precious and treasured in the human experience. The decades I’d feared proved to be one long glut of happiness. Regrettably those decades lasted no longer than a deep breath, though I'll have no trouble remembering the gist of it. Not with all the memories left behind. Always the memories.

Salvatore Gentile,


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